Carika Van Zyl vs Sunday Times

Complainant: Carika Van Zyl

Lodged by: Carika Van Zyl

Article: Uproar over ‘bantus’ moving in on West Coast hamlet

Author of article: Shanaaz Eggington

Date: 15 April 2015

Respondent: Susan Smuts, legal editor of the Sunday Times

Complaint

Van Zyl is complaining about a report in the Sunday Times of 15 March 2015, headlined Uproar over ‘bantus’ moving in on West Coast hamlet.

She complains that:

·         her comments were not properly reported;

·         the story was out of context and unbalanced as she was linked to an article with racist undertones; and

·         the statement in the story that she was involved in a petition with Mr Pieter Stegmann was incorrect.

The text

The story, written by Shanaaz Eggington, said that the town of Hopefield was in uproar over a new mine in the area. He reported that tourist official Lizelle Strydom “[w]as forced to resign after she had refused to retract her claim that the development on a farm between Hopefield and Langebaan would attract black people”. The article contained opposing views on the matter.

Analysis

Comments omitted

Van Zyl complains that her “[c]omments were not added about it being a human rights issue…” She adds she told the reporter that the matter was about clean water and a healthy environment, and therefore it was a human rights issue.

The legal editor says that Van Zyl made some serious allegations of corruption against the mine and the Department of Mineral Resources. “It would have been highly irresponsible to publish these allegations in the absence of evidence of such crimes.” She admits that Van Zyl gave the reporter more information than what was published, “[b]ut we submit we were not obliged to use everything she said”.

My considerations

I have no reason to disbelieve Smuts that Van Zyl has made allegations of corruption (I note that the latter did not dispute this). I therefore commend Sunday Times for not publishing these comments, in the absence of enough evidence.

Secondly, I also agree with Smuts that a newspaper is not obliged to report everything a source tells a journalist

However, the Press Code is clear that there should be no material omissions. The real reason for Van Zyl having been opposed to the mine seems to centre around her belief that it was a human rights issue (the right to clean water and a healthy environment). It is unfortunate that this was not reported. Instead, the story referred to a lack of research on small animals such as tortoises and lizards.

I can well understand Van Zyl’s unhappiness on this particular issue. I agree with her that this was poor reporting – but the issue before me is if the omission in question was so serious that it was in fact in breach of the Press Code.

In other words: Was this a material omission?

This is indeed a tricky question, as I can understand both Smuts’s and Van Zyl’s arguments. From the newspaper’s perspective, Van Zyl’s reason for being against the mine is not material; from her perspective, though, it is.

I believe that Van Zyl’s unhappiness with this omission has everything to do with the next part of her complaint.

Racist undertones

The article quoted tourism official Lizelle Strydom referring to black people as “bantus”.

Van Zyl says the story was out of context and not balanced as she was linked to racist undertones. She argues: “I am complaining based on the fact that my interview [with Eggington]was about processes not being following when the mining right was granted… Then it turned into a racial article…so I am being associated with this.”

Smuts denies the story implied that Van Zyl was a racist or that she associated herself with racist views. “Her published comments follow a section of the article where concerns about the environmental impact of the mine are discussed. Only a willful misreading of the story would suggest that it implies her objections are based on racism.”

My considerations

Again, it depends from which perspective one looks at this matter.

Smuts’s argument that Van Zyl’s comments followed a section of the article where concerns about the environmental impact of the mine were discussed are valid. On the other hand, though, the headline to the story read, Uproar over ‘bantus’ moving in on West Coast hamlet. Van Zyl’s comments featured under this heading.

The fact that the story omitted her basic reason for being against the mine, must have exacerbated her complaint in this regard.

Involved in a petition

The story said: “A group of concerned citizens started a Facebook page… and there is an online petition driven by conservationist Carika van Zyl and environmental activist Pieter Stegmann.”

Van Zyl says she started the petition, but denies that she did this with Stegmann – a person whom she has never even met.

Smuts replies that Stegmann was involved in the petition, whether Van Zyl has met him or not.

My considerations

I have asked the newspaper for clarification on this issue, and Smuts responded as follows: “We do not argue that they are involved in the petition together, only that Mr Stegmann supports it. We will not attempt to take the point further.”

There is a slight difference between “driven” (as stated in the story) and “involved” (as stated by Smuts). The word “driven” may have been an over-statement – but again, I am not convinced that the use of that word constitutes a breach of the Press Code.

Finding

Comments omitted

From a journalistic perspective the omission in question was not material enough to the story as a whole to warrant a finding against the Sunday Times. The complaint is therefore dismissed.

Please see my request below.

Racist undertones

Smuts’s argument that Van Zyl’s comments followed a section of the article where concerns about the environmental impact of the mine were discussed are valid enough to not warrant a finding against the newspaper. The complaint is therefore dismissed.

Please see my request below.

Involved in a petition

The use of the word “driven” was unfortunate, but not to such an extent that it has breached the Press Code.

Please see my request below.

Request

Because I have dismissed the complaint, I have no right to sanction the Sunday Times.

However, my sense of fairness tells me that the newspaper should do something to give Van Zyl some sort of satisfaction. My request is that it gives her a right of reply, either in a follow-up story or in the form of a letter to the editor.

Please note that this is not a directive, it is merely a request.

Appeal

Our Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven working days of receipt of this decision, either party may apply for leave to appeal to the Chairperson of the SA Press Appeals Panel, Judge Bernard Ngoepe, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief

Press Ombudsman